The Party, 20.03.2014

A few rickety metal chairs and a pile of ash are the only clues remaining now, come Wednesday, of the vast Party celebrated on the banks of the Lea last Sunday for Patrick’s fiftieth birthday party. Even on Tuesday, fingers of smoke were still escaping from the mighty bonfire and the dying embers buried beneath cinder and ash, as if hanging on to the memory of the Party that had conjured them into being. Then and there, in the prosaic morning light, it seemed sadly out of place, like a reveller stunned among the rush-hour crowds. The secret labour of a fire becomes self-conscious and ridiculous in the white morning sun.

The Party was a magical, festive event that belonged more to the cannons of make-believe than real-world experience. In spirit It resembled a glee or village fete – an occasion enjoyed by all age groups; with at least as many animal attendees as human ones. Since I have Northern Lights particularly in mind after teaching it to my Year 8s, the Party was not at all unlike one of the Gyptian “ropings” – a grand river gypsy synod – in which river folk from miles around descended upon the small 60 ft radius of Patrick’s boat in travelling teams of barges, wide-beams and narrow boats. The king of the occasion, Patrick himself, was unmistakeably preeminent in burgundy corduroys, a pair of clown-like converse shoes, a small black Trilby hat and a pair of elasticated braces. His face – browned and wrinkled with age and the strains of river-life – was transported into a welcoming and open smile that stayed with him the entire night, and seemed to deepen and widen with every glass of vodka, tumbler of wine and roll-up cigarette. A hundred boaters had come from all the corners of London to celebrate with Patrick, and Sunday day and night belonged to him.

I first got wind of the event when I was sitting out on deck on Saturday. I could see a man splitting a large pile of logs outside; each dull crack announced another deft swing of his axe. Then the man approached me – the same mad, friendly smile –

“There’s going to be a party here tomorrow night,” he said cordially, he was a new neighbour after all. “Just to give you due notice. It’s my birthday, so it will probably go on till late.”

The night of his birthday was a Sunday night, I thought uneasily of the inevitable pile of marking and lesson-planning that awaited me for Monday.

“I imagine that we’ll come and say hello!” I rejoined, and he nodded his head encouragingly, then wandered off to split some more logs.

Some people ask what the river-side community is like, what my sense of it is. Frankly, from what I have seen, in the winter the boating community is largely invisible. Cold weather and inhospitable conditions force boaters inside to huddle round their coal fires and wood-burners. It is a dull, hard struggle, especially given the infernal damp that arises from persistent rain. But river-life, like some many other things, comes into its own in Summer. Then the river bank explodes with all the colourful creatures hemmed in by the winter freeze; the thaw brings newly-planted flowers, the herby scent of pot, the lyrical strains of music floating in through open shutters and cabin portholes. I am sure that given enough experience and friends, social life on the river could be ever-green, and one could cultivate the kind of floating community around oneself that Penelope Fitzgerald describes in the scruffy, yet dignified account of her Thames life in Battersea Reach.

One of my most envious and intriguing moments on the Lea River, however, occurred in the dead of winter. Gideon and I were cycling back via The Princess of Wales beside the Hackney Cut, towards our boat in Hackney Marsh. As we approached the Filter Beds the sound of thumping guitars and accordions dimly perceptible in the funnels of wind that crashed around cheeks and ears, became louder and louder. Before long, the genesis of the sound was evident: there it was afloat in the river, an unmistakeable open-air party boat, dazzling and glittering on the black river.

The Butty had been created from the shell of an old narrowboat converted for the purposes of primordial enjoyment, with old army-style canvases unfurling down from its sides and lanterns made from jam-jars bobbing around from the makeshift roof. Every inch of the floor space was occupied with chairs and sofas, and revellers lounging with beer or playing music. A pacey reel was heard, played by experts with native ears – the manic chitter of the fiddle, the rhythmic strumming of guitars; the persistent airy sighs of the accordion. As we cycled by, I was filled with longing to be part of that scene, sitting companionably among the music and the chatter, in the comforting heart of river life. But of course we did not stop – pride, fear of the known – and instead pedalled dutifully back to Hawisia.

Now, months on, the party had come to us. I knew exactly what would happen as soon as I saw the large forest-green wide-beam with the famous adjoining Butty moored up beside us. A sign as unmistakeable as the circus marquee, the gilded gypsy caravan or the travelling magicians with fish-eye lenses that Marquez describes in the opening of A Hundred Years of Solitude.

That night I felt a little like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby vicariously partaking in the excitement of my neighbour’s successes, especially with the blaring of the green light from the bridge so cognate with the haunting green light Gatsby observed each night winking moodily at him from the jetty. Though we had three other narrow boats roped in a queue alongside ours, we were clearly not the attraction; it was news of the party that had spread along the waterways, and drawn everyone to the Lea like a magnet towards its nucleus.

On land neighbours can be close, sometimes uncomfortably so, if their apple tree is seen to encroach on your patch or your cat always takes refuge in their kitchen. But on the river, when someone “piggy-backs” your boat, your cruiser stern becomes the gangway to whatever multiple of boaters living beside you that require a passage between land and water. That night I heard a constant train of footsteps padding across our Lister Engine, tripping on the bunting and upsetting the newly planted bulbs. But I didn’t mind; there is something close and companionable about being moored abreast other boats, as well as that sweet, inevitable moment of contact. At one point I peeked outside and someone quickly threw a rough handshake in my direction.

“Pleased to meet you, I’m Mike, I hope you don’t mind that I’m moored up beside you tonight, I should be gone in the morning.”

“Oh I don’t mind at all,” I said, and I meant it (I had already been spying on his excellent mounted mariners collection of knots from my window). He had a lovely, snug boat, all varnished panelled oak, lit up prettily in places with LED strips. Then I looked over Mike’s shoulder. I saw a woman looking a little uncertainly over in my direction. Her face was plain and unmade, her hair was tied up in a rough bun at the nape of her neck.

“You all right?” she asked – as a slightly lazy “in”.

“Oh yes, just doing some gardening,” I replied, reaching for my nasturtiums.

“Aren’t you going to join the party?”

“Oh I will a little later on, but I have some work to do first…”

And so the conversation glided inevitably towards teaching and to what she did herself, working with children in some capacity.

“I can work with schools”, she said, “but not for them.”

I grunted in affirmation that I didn’t truly feel and went to find my mug of tea. The next time I glanced over in her direction, I could see she was already deep in conversation with someone else, squashed, levitating almost, on her cruiser stern, feet propped up on the control panel.

So the night passed – with the hum of conversation building in spontaneous crescendos outside, and the shadow of dogs running past the outside window in a happy, inexplicable pursuit of each other. Each time I turned over in bed, the chorus of instruments outside struck up another tune, and the babble of conversation lifted and fell. When I peered outside at 4 am, they were still there, though the ring of people standing around the fire had visibly lessened. They looked like trolls or night-ghasts protecting a deep secret. As the silence of the morning lulled me to sleep, I imagined them still sitting there determinedly in patient unison, for many hours to come, waiting to worship the dawn.

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Love on the Boat

The fire cracks and pops like a tiny Vesuvius spraying flecks of flaming debris across the hearthstone. The wood is coming up in scaly welts, melted from within by the dry flames of the fire. The door of the wood-burner is open as I failed to  jam in a rather large square of wood. Wisps of smoke are escaping to penetrate the boat interior with a rich oaken perfume.

It is Thursday night so I am waiting for Gideon to get back from the bike shop. He will come back with his hands grimed with bike oil, his faced flush and hot with sweat worked up in the quick race back home. His route is not long: gliding along Hackney Downs then cutting across the Lower Clapton Road to the Chatsworth Road and then along Millfields by the estates. In fifteen minutes time he will see the grass green light glaring from our nearest bridge. My heart accompanies him in each fleet swoop of his click-in peddles, each miniature circumference that brings him closer to me.

I do not dream of love because love is the very essence of this boat. It expresses itself in each kind and giving act that the boat demands. Love is implicit in the tiny bathroom, which fits just one; or the cold wet cabin where we sleep. Only loving kindness can make these difficulties bearable, and yes, even beautiful. I have never slept so well as I do in this boat, despite the moulding wainscoting of the walls. Within the acorn on my lover’s arms I am safe and warm and we glow and grow as we dream.

For H, 13.03.2014

Carrots or Spuds?

We lived beside Murphy back up by the filter beds. In that part of the river a sandy-brown Victorian garden wall snakes beside the tow-path, marking the outer limits of the old Thames Water cleaning facility; now the charmed garden gates of the “Middlesex Filter Beds and Wildlife Conservation Area”. The former industrial project site has now become home to a number of different colonies of birds, that you can see hovering among the branches of the thin, sickly-looking trees. The discrete set of tiny concrete lagoons, overgrown with weeds, is now the only clue remaining as to the former function of this oddly quiet and sequestered place beside the Hackney Cut, once the site of a productive nineteenth-century industrial mill.

Murphy was the sort of neighbour that would make a more respectable sort of person wary. The strip of bank beside his boat was always cluttered with a mind-boggling assortment of junk: scrap metal, old refrigerators, ship heads, shopping trolleys and leaky car batteries. Though I did not speak to him many times personally, he made it clear to me that he was “the man to speak to if you were after metal or batteries.” Sometimes at night, the sounds of Cockney voices could be heard piercing the cool, still envelope of Homerton-night air; and then it was almost tangible: the suspense of secrets, the volleys of curses, the fragments of an argument so heated that it made the hairs on your arm stand on end. Who knew how many anonymous, shadowy confederates lurked in the corners of Murphy’s boat? They always came and went in darkness, leaving the boat palpably more weightless and innocent by day.

Once I made the mistake of looking too closely at one of Murphy’s belligerent friends.

“Get off! You’ve been here too long! It stinks!” – insults and oaths were being traded between land and water, while Murphy stood on his cruiser stern gesturing angrily at a stooped figure on the bank.

Alert, concerned, curious to see how the scene would develop, I stopped midway in my descent into Hawisia’s kitchen. The figure on the bank immediately realised he was being watched,

“And what exactly are you looking at?! Do you want a piece…?!” The terrifying hooded figure started walking towards my boat.

I most certainly did not want to tangle with this man and scuttled into the safety of the boat as soon as I was able – bolting the locks firmly as I went. I felt a little shaken by the abrupt threat – the harassing gesture, the morbid intensity of anger fixed on the man’s dirty face.

The next morning, Murphy knocked sweetly on our hatch roof. I hid in the bathroom allowing Gideon to take over. “Good morning!” he said brightly.

“I just err…. Wondered if you wanted some water… I’m going down to the Wick to fill up…”

I could see his bicycle trailer waiting expectantly on the bank.

“Oh, don’t worry, we’re fine for now, but thanks for asking!” Gideon piped back.

I watched him hop off the boat and onto his bike. “It was his way of saying sorry”, Gideon explained.

Occasionally other suggestive puzzle-pieces of Murphy’s life would come to call. Once or twice groups of ‘extended family’ would lurk outside and all of a sudden, clamber mysteriously on board. One little girl with lank brown hair, bored by adult conversation, preferred to glide up and down above the bank, where Murphy had built her a makeshift swing. What could that huddled congregation of visitors be discussing on board? I speculated.

Then, unexpectedly, I saw Murphy again this morning. We are further down river than previously, closer to the busy Lea Bridge Road and The Anchor and Hope pub. It was a very windy day and the boat was rocking and creaking considerably. Suddenly I heard a rat-a-tat-tat on the metal hatch door and promptly opened up. A bald head, wide woozy eyes, at least five gold teeth: “Oh, Hi Murphy!” I cooed. “You’re not normally this far up river.”

“Ah, no…” he replied doubtfully. “It’s because we’re selling…” And as way of explanation he suddenly held up two fist-fulls of vegetables: one large potato, one thick carrot. “Need any carrots or spuds? We’re selling them for £2 a kilo. You can get some now, or if you ever need anything just give me a ring – you know where to find me.”

Anxious to support this fledgling river economy – for Murphy was not a rich man – I said I would check in my wallet and see what I could find. I returned with a five-pound note.

“Two pounds of carrots and two pounds of potatoes please”, I requested, and watched him stagger uncouthly back up the steep muddy bank by the boat, past thicket and bramble.

By this point his trousers were rapidly drifting away from their intended position, as he swam and staggered towards a friend at the top of the bank who was leaning over an old shopping trolley. I recognised him immediately: the scowl, the dark look, the hooded, slumped figure. I watched as they brought out a battered Newton meter from their trolley and began weighing up the vegetables and plummeting them into plastic bags.

After a few minutes Murphy returned and held the bags out to me. I thanked him and we had a little chat: I asked him if he was still by the filter beds, he replied that he was. He said that he was not very well, so had to be within close walking distance of Homerton Hospital. Suddenly it all made sense: his kindly smile, the extended family visits.

Without warning his chronically dissatisfied friend began growling at us from the top of the bank.

“Oh, it’s your friend”, I said, as though he hadn’t noticed.

“My brother”, he replied.

“Your brother?” I repeated, incredulously (I still remembered the multiple rebukes, threats of eviction, traded insults and oaths.)

“Better get on!” he said brightly. We hugged and then he staggered on down the mud path towards the next boat.

A little later I saw him clambering back up the mound. He was still there: waiting, watching, intent and beady-eyed. Suddenly it made me think of the opening of Great Expectations. Murphy and his choleric, quarrelsome brother were like Magwitch and his hated partner, hopelessly chained together in steel manacles. Like lovers or enemies, locked together in a bitter, secret, never-ending feud.

Ewan the Fish, 18.02.2014

There’s a big fish called Ewan that lives underneath our boat in the Walthamstow Marshes.  I can tell he’s there because every so often, when the boat rocks, he lets out a little burp which travels like a water pearl along the hull of the boat and “blips” as it bursts into the air.

The marshes are full of sounds: squishing, slurping, burping sounds; the sounds orchestrated by all the imaginative combinations of mud, rain and river water. There’s Ewan (that Gideon in his more paranoid moments thinks might be a hole in the boat), and then there are the slurping and sloshing sounds that people make outside as they slip on the mud of the towpath by the thorny raised bank. Sometimes you hear the odd splash when an over-eager dog careers into a puddle beside Marion, a green boat next to ours. The puddle is as deep as your ankle. I tried to solve the problem once by placing a bit of plywood into the watery hole, hoping that it would perform the role of a makeshift bridge. But it just sank pitifully to the bottom of the miniature lake, covered with dirty rainwater and stray bits of grass. I hauled it out and chucked it onto another, slightly less water-logged puddle.

It is not uncommon for me to return to the boat in the early evening, to find a jubilant Behemoth prancing through the long grass in happiness at my return. Often I just need to call her name and she emerges from the scrubland like a tiny, safari leopard, sprinting and leaping. This particular evening, I humoured her, chasing her around the boat and up the mound. It was then that I noticed that a number of large dynamic swarms of midges had decided to meet together by the port-side of our boat, in an ill-fated witches coven. They were bumping into each other and knocking heads, popping, fizzing and effervescing with useless energy.

It suddenly dawned on me, almost newly, that we were living in a marsh beside a river swollen with rainwater. The slippery mud and the buzz and hum of flies; the deceptive and deadly glitter of the uppermost river currents, the boggy plank, sucked like a plug into the slippery bank, those circling whirligigs of midges – all made me feel a little nauseous.

The noisy indent my boots make after I alight the mud and hop onto the boat and the new ‘no shoes’ policy onboard, also feel like signs heralding a change of tempo in the daily rhythms of boat life. And the new element of mud has been added to that of water – as one of the most presiding mediums and textures of my life. I live in that slippery, viscose, saturated place – a place I have in common with the walkers in Port Meadow in Oxford, or the dwellers on England’s flood plains or the inhabitants of that vast mathematical salt plain that I visited in Bolivia. It is most definitely wellington boots territory. Every time I make the precarious passage down the side of the muddy bank to the boat, I watch my footing like a falcon. One wrong or badly judged step and I would be down on the mound on my bottom, or straight into the water below.

Now I feel not only like a boater – a liminal traveller on the waterways and canals of London –  but also a martian – I mean somebody who lives on a marsh, and it makes me smile because it reminds me of the BBC adaptation of The Silver Chair in the Narnia series and the fantastic visual vernacular of that film: the marsh folk, the moss huts, the woodland creatures, the men with green hair and gruff voices. C.S. Lewis’s conception of the boggy swamplands stuck vividly in my mind as a child because it meant more to him than just a geographical feature; marsh-land was a whole kingdom of people with distinctive habits and mannerisms.

It seems oddly pertinent now, this illustration of marsh culture as a demented place where odd people live. It is true. Marsh life is one of the strangest lives of all; people make do in a primeval, anarchic way. Marsh-boats are patched together with stray bits of timber and plastic; their weatherboarding is paltry, ad-hoc and cobbled together through serendipity. But somehow I admire these alien vessels, strange and desperate, that grow up on the margin of the Walthamstow riverbank like pores. They are statements of creativity, freedom and yes, iron endurance. They seem to defy the rising house prices and the entrammels of bourgeois domestication springing up all around them in monied Hackney and Stoke Newington. Mesolithic, atavistic, they seem to whisper: In London you can still live as you want. In London you can still be free. In my opinion, marsh boats are the best of all.

The marshes are littered with the bric-a-brack of marsh life just like the flotsam and jetsam that is washed up with the surf on beaches. Strange objects and treasures are disgorged by the mile-deep mud every day. One thing that has particularly caught my attention in this urban tangle is a tarnished fork of metal shaped like a shepherds crook, just outside my window. The shepherd’s crook is at the bottom of the mound, in the heart of the water-logged path. Its unexpected protuberances, echoes that of the spiked briars and brambles on the mound, with their thin, ugly red tendrils. I hacked away at these petulant arms one morning with a pair of scissors as I was doing some path-clearing.

My feeling for the place seems to be epitomised by this metal wand, the rusted trident of the swamp-land-King, or so it seems, thrusting through the boggy soil. Like the spear of Eliot’s malevolent fish-king it shakes menacingly in the wind.

‘All of us, I b…

‘All of us, I believe, carry about in our heads, places and landscapes we shall never forget because we have experienced such intensity of life there: places where, like the child that ‘feels its life in every limb’ in Wordsworth’s poem ‘We are Seven’, our eyes have opened wider, and all our senses have somehow heightened. By way of returning the compliment, we accord these places that have given us such joy a special place in our memories and imaginations. They live on in us, wherever we may be, however far away from them.’

Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways, p.242